Vienna has been declared the most liveable city in the world for seven years in a row. So I visited to find out why it’s so popular, with 14 million annual visitors.
Vienna is easy to walk around and I’d recommend wandering. Take in street after street of grand and impressive 18th century architecture, arcades and colonnades. It’s filled with parks and open spaces including a canal and the River Danube. It means it doesn’t feel like you’re in a city of two million people.
Vienna’s districts are numbered starting with the first district in the centre, so you can work out how far out of town an area is. The old city is surrounded by a 5km-long road known as The Ring. You’ll hear it mentioned a lot. They built this circular boulevard in the 1850s, on the site of the old city walls. It’s a shame they were demolished but you can still see some remains.
The second to ninth districts are the old city suburbs outside the ring. Then there’s an outer ring road – the belt – which contains today’s suburbia, and covers the tenth to nineteenth districts. These higher numbers indicate it’s too far to comfortably walk from the centre. A ten-minute train ride from the centre of the city, you pass the United Nations offices – a very 1980’s-looking, curved high-rise, surrounded by lots of steps and a plaza.
And at the next stop, you’re away from the bustle of city life altogether. Here they re-routed the River Danube to create a waterpark. You’ll find an oasis of calm and a haven for the outdoorsy Viennese, sandwiched between river bridges carrying trains and cars. The water is so clear you can see the shale and weed at the bottom. When I was there, people of all ages were diving off the wooden piers into the old river. I stood looking down from a road bridge as people below me walked dogs along the wooden boardwalk, cyclists rode alongside the river on cycle paths and some locals lay on the steep grassy riverbank, lapping up the sunshine.
I also spotted a Viennese version of the booze cruise! People were onboard what looked like floating garden decking. They were sitting on patio chairs and under parasols on a flat wooden craft, topped by a garden shed. The passengers where having a whale of a time, drinking white wine and waving to every passing vessel – from yachts to kayaks to pedalos. I got a cheer as they sailed beneath my bridge. You could have been in a lakeside village in the Alps.
Helena Hartlauer from Vienna’s Tourist Board told me, ”It’s a bit like a different city within the city. It’s so green and outdoorsy and active, whereas the city centre is so elegant – full of culture and art. You can access it within five or six tube stops. It’s quite unique.”
Whilst you might not want to get onto – or into – the water in winter, there’s plenty to do, whatever time of year you come. For decades, locals have had fun at the Prater Amusement Park. The 212 foot high Ferris wheel has dominated the landscape since 1897. And if you have nerves of steel, the Prater Tower gives you the chance to see the city from a 380-foot high swing carousel. I’m too much of a coward to try those rides!
As I walked away, the screams of the riders faded into the traffic noise and were replaced by what sounded like rushing water. I was surprised to see and hear crashing waves in the centre of Vienna. People can go surfing thanks to the 3CityWave simulator contained in a giant outdoor tank covering one thousand square metres.
Lukas Kaiser says it requires some getting used to, even if you’ve tried ocean surfing. “It’s completely different to surfing in the sea because the balance on the board is altered. You don’t go with the wave – water comes from the front. A lot of experienced sea surfers who have been to Australia and Bali think they can surf like a pro here. Then they go on the river surf wave and it’s completely different. It is not as easy as it looks,” he says. This summertime attraction costs €39 an hour.
I’d spent much of my first day strolling around the city. Vienna is easy to explore by foot but if you want to use public transport, they’ve made tourist travel hassle-free. Get a 24- or 48-hour pass, the Vienna Card, and all your trips are included. Helena told me that the card offers discounts at over two hundred attractions, food and drink venues, and is designed to make exploring easy. “So many people tell us the transport system is impressive and surprisingly fast and well functioning. It’s just one thing that makes visiting the city so much easier if you don’t have to worry about how to get around.”
For a more unusual way to travel, you could relive the days of the Habsburg Empire and see the city from the back of a horse-drawn carriage. There must have been thirty queued up at an equine taxi rank in the impressive Michaelerplatz, the square in the centre of the city. The green-domed Imperial Palace, which was the seat of power, dominates the plaza. There are also Roman remains opposite, which give you a sense of the history and importance of this city.
Through a high, imposing archway you’ll reach the most popular city attraction – The Spanish Riding School – where white Lipizzaner horses perform dressage shows. Tour guide Alexa Brauner says the shows are a popular choice. “They are very elegant and intelligent horses. They offer what is equivalent to a horse ballet. You can see it in the riding hall in the Imperial Palace.”
People have visited Vienna for centuries to enjoy classical music concerts. Alexa told me that the Habsburgs and the Austrian aristocracy wanted to have people composing in-house for their guests. That’s why Mozart and Beethoven came to Vienna and local composers like Strauss made their name in the city. “Everyday there are concerts of the music of Strauss and Mozart in historic locations,” she says. Both composers’ homes are now popular museums.
Björg Birgisdóttir is a part-time opera singer who relocated from Iceland. She told me that she wanted to enjoy access to world-class performances in this city, renowned for its connection with the composers of musical masterpieces. Björg explained, “There are two main operas in Vienna, the Volksoper and the Staatsoper. The Volksoper performs lighter pieces including operettas.”
Björg’s favourite opera house is the Volksoper. “It’s just so majestic. I’m fond of the old version of an opera house where it’s all gold and red. In summer, a big screen outside the opera lets you enjoy the performances whilst eating Bradwurst!”
If you attend the main operas, the evening often ends in sausage snacking! The wurst stalls are a local tradition and the stands stay open very late at the weekends, after many restaurants shut. You will be able to buy food, even after the longest opera.
You could argue that this shows how egalitarian opera is in Vienna. I can’t imagine London’s operagoers queuing up for a hot dog after the show, with the fancy price they pay for tickets. Opera remains affordable here. Helena told me that you can get really cheap tickets for under €10. You might not have a view and you’ll need to stand, but you can get the experience without spending a lot of money or having to dress up.
If you’re going for a cheap standing room ticket, here’s a tip – Björg told me that there are some professional operagoers who take their own chairs! Björg feels that being in a city rich in musical heritage is important. “You’ve got the homes and cafes where the composers lived and breathed, where they wrote their music,” she told me.
Music composed in this city is brought to life each winter during the ball season. “It is really fun,” said Helena. “It’s something that people might assume is really expensive or that you cannot get tickets but it is possible. There are more than 450 balls every year and 90% fall between November and February. There’s one almost every day.”
Helena told me it’s like time travelling but if traditional music isn’t to your taste, there are also hip-hop and techno balls. And if you don’t know how to waltz you could go on a crash course beforehand. “Some people really prepare very well and attend waltzing lessons for the week before a ball. That’s also fun. You feel a bit Royal,’ she added. The Vienna Info website has an event calendar, which tells you when the balls are taking place.
As I possess two left feet, I decided to opt for some museums. I headed to the Mozart Museum – an inconspicuous and narrow but tall town house in a side street. This was Amadeus’ home for three years from 1747. There’s not much to see to be honest, although the guide excitedly told me to imagine the genius staring out of at the street view and composing The Marriage of Figaro, which he did here. It’s a town house decorated as it would have been in the era, complete with some of his instruments. You’ll also learn about Mozart’s life. Much of Europe’s aristocracy and royalty wanted to meet the child prodigy, so he travelled widely and learned many languages. He had a high IQ and although he wasn’t blessed with good looks, his charm and connections helped with his love life. He was also a gambler and had to keep moving! The city is home to the Strauss Museum as well – an apartment in which he lived for seven years. Apparently he wasn’t a gambler and didn’t have to keep moving.
Vienna’s interactive Sound Museum also pays homage to composers connected to the city and you can hear examples of their works or watch video recordings of a number of classic concerts. You could also see whether you have what it takes to be the next Mozart. The stairs to the first floor of the exhibition are effectively a giant keyboard and as you walk up them, your footsteps play notes. It encourages kids to run up and down the steps to play tunes – I suspect the security guards eat headache tablets like Smarties!
There’s more musical racket-making potential on the next floor, where you can try to compose you own waltz by throwing a dice onto a screen. When it lands, it plays a short burst of music. Keep tossing the dice to compose your own waltz, which you can burn to a CD and buy.
But the coolest interactive area lets you conduct the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. You stand next at the conductor’s podium in front of a massive video screen displaying the orchestra. They greet you as you step onto the platform and their performance speeds up, slows or stops depending on your baton abilities. It’s really hard – the musicians walked off screen after telling me I was rubbish in German. Seriously.
I stayed in a cool, boutique hotel in Vienna – the Ruby Marie. It’s in the creative Seventh District, a 20-minute walk to the centre of town along the main shopping street, Mariahilferstrasse. The hotel is in a circular building clad with metal panels that glisten in the sunshine. As you walk down the curving, windowed corridor to the lifts, the view gives the impression that you could be on board a ship.
The hotel has a very relaxed feel and the main bar area felt more like a New York loft apartment. It’s a comfortable space with low lighting and sofas and chairs opening out onto a terrace, where you can enjoy a sunny breakfast or a chilled out evening drink looking over the city.
Chief operating officer Michael Struck says it’s calm, serene and relaxed. He calls it an ‘urban oasis.’ It’s also very hi-tech. There’s no reception. New self check-in terminals are within the open bar and lounge space, which has free tea and coffee and a library. I did laugh at the meeting room – there are, let’s call it, ‘management bingo phrases’ written on the walls so if you’re having a meeting you can see who’s using all the clichés. Michael says this meeting area was important to their design. “Sociologists use the term ‘alone together’. People don’t want to be sitting in their rooms by themselves as they check their emails or Facebook,” he explained.
My room was spotlessly clean, comfortable and nearly all-white with a deep, freestanding roll top bath in the middle and a wet room to the side, with a shower. Michael told me, “We wanted to define a new type of luxury. Our idea of luxury is not gold taps or a marble entrances or huge rooms that you don’t need on a city trip. It’s about lighting, it’s about quality of materials.”
The hotel group has several different room types in each of their properties and they work around the building, rather than follow a set format. There are some interesting artistic touches too, like graphic novel-style murals and as you leave the building, the lift features the words of a James Blunt song: ‘Goodbye my lover, you have been my friend.’
The Vienna Tourist Board arranged my accommodation at Hotel Ruby Marie. I’d definitely stay there again. If you’d like a personalised walking tour of the markets, open spaces, up-and-coming areas or Vienna’s elite neighbourhoods, visit AlexaBrauner.at.
Vienna is a beautiful, opulent and varied city and it’s so easy to get to from London. Flying time is 140 minutes and single fares start at £35.